Virtual Worlds Bring Added Value to Business Resources

A Meeting Using the OLIVE PlatformIn the current economy, businesses are wise to seek new and improved ways to stretch their dollars. For those with the capital to invest, virtual worlds offer an incredible resource for real-time collaboration beyond local office space and international borders.

The three-dimensional environments bring workers together virtually, allowing them to share and collaborate as if they literally sat across from each other. Though the technology continues to be fine-tuned, the potential of virtual worlds for businesses goes as far as the mind can reach.

As virtual worlds expert Nick Wilson explained to Game Forward, the main value of these meeting spaces is to complement real-world business by reducing costs and increasing productivity, reach and organizational effectiveness. But before a company decides to jump into virtual world technology, several important factors must be considered, as each world available on the market offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Read More...

As one of the two members of Clever Zebra, a company that specializes in virtual worlds consulting, Nick Wilson spends a lot of time in-world. In his online book, Virtual Worlds for Business, he breaks them down to help companies find the right fit. The publication is updated quarterly and new case studies are constantly added to the site.

Wilson and his partner work exclusively in-world and having tried them all, they prefer Second Life for its diversity and community. “I've never met our Operations guy, Caleb Booker. He lives in Canada, I live in the UK and we live, work and play in virtual worlds. Our office is a broadband connection to the 3D web,” added Wilson.

“We generally use Second Life,” Wilson said. “A typical meeting sees us hanging out on the balcony of our offices overlooking the sea and the rest of the island as we chat. Sometimes we have our meetings in text or private voice while attending other events also.”

While Second Life is better known for its entertainment uses, which some tend to dismiss, the virtual world is actively used by many reputable organizations including IT leaders IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Sun Microsystems and Cisco.

Second Life was the first to seriously break through into the corporate market. Launched by Linden Lab in July 2003, the platform set the stage for what virtual worlds should be. As such, Second Life is not necessarily geared to businesses. However, the 3D customizable environment and avatars as well as the islands which companies can purchase create the perfect work or conference setting. In-world, users have the ability to communicate in text or 3D spatial voice chat between avatars. During conferences, keynote speakers can address an entire group while subgroups maintain contact and discuss without disrupting the main presentation.

The platform’s main drawbacks are high system requirements, its steep learning curve and that there is no simple way to incorporate office applications. Businesses with privacy concerns should know that Linden Lab records all text conversations, though arrangements have been made against this in specific cases. Second Life can also cause firewall issues in some workplaces as it is hosted remotely.

Second Life’s up and coming competitor is OpenSimulator, an open source platform which is still in development but is already getting attention. The software is noticed for its simple content creation, customizable environments and compatibility with the Second Life client. Companies like IBM, Microsoft, Nokia and Intel have already been flirting with the platform.

For IBM, which held two major events in-world in 2008, a significant benefit of using virtual worlds is the money they saved. In a case study published for Second Life, the company saw a return on investment of around $320,000 by having hosted its Virtual World Conference online.

“With an initial investment of roughly $80,000, IBM estimates that they saved over $250,000 in travel and venue costs and more than $150,000 in additional productivity gains (since participants were already at their computers and could dive back into work immediately).”

But saving money is not the only advantage choosing virtual worlds to organize meetings and events. The benefits are also environmental. The Risk Insurance Management Society (RIMS) used the Active Worlds platform to host its 2008 RIMS Risk Live 3D virtual conference. The older virtual world has low system requirements and is considered easier to master than Second Life. The RIMS two-day event included over 500 participants and saved an estimated 180 tons of CO2 by holding its presentations in-world.

While technical requirements and ease of use are important considerations in selecting a platform, the immersion factor is what defines the virtual world experience. For example, the OLIVE platform developed by Forterra Systems is mainly used as a real world event simulator by government, defence, healthcare, and education clients.

“The ability to see the others there and the sharing of an interesting space together did contribute to a feeling of attending a event in a different way than simply dialling into a large conference call,” commented one participant in the IBM case study.

“When people woke up the morning after the virtual meetings and thought about the day before, it wasn’t like remembering a webcast or a phone conference. We truly felt as if we had attended a real-time meeting, interacting with others and carrying home practical information,” said Craig Becker, Global architect for IBM’s Digital Convergence EBO.

While many are still hesitant to enter virtual worlds, some developers may be able to bridge the gap to make virtual worlds more accessible. This includes embracing Web2.0. In August 2008, Nortel Networks introduced web.alive, a browser-based world that can be embedded within any site just like a YouTube video.

The platform landed its first customer, the Lenovo eLounge, a virtual 3D online retail store, in early 2009. Though Nortel Networks filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2009, the web.alive team expects work to continue on the project over the course of the year.

“While virtual worlds are nascent, they've had a lot of money pumped into them and have a lot of tech behind them, yet the designs haven't had time to evolve, or breathe, across the genre to be meaningful in any way,” Mathew Kumar, contributing editor with Gamasutra, said to Game Forward. “But there's a seed of something good there that could come out of it.”

It is hard to predict the role that virtual worlds will play within businesses in coming years. While there is much room for improvement, having the support of large corporations who already use them can only help. Already, their benefits are undeniable, as proven by companies who are getting more value for their dollar, using their resources more efficiently and streamlining their operations. Don’t be surprised if find a virtual world being used in your workplace in the near future.